Lions seek improvement heading into quarterfinal round

Senior defensive back Philbert Martial returns a punt in North Alabama’s 41-17  playoff victory over North Carolina-Pembroke at home. The Lions advance to the quarterfinal round for the first time since 2013 with the win.

by Managing Editor Mike Ezekiel

Despite a lopsided 41-17 win in the second round of the playoffs over fifth seeded North Carolina-Pembroke last week, the North Alabama football team is not completely satisfied.

The top-seeded Lions (9-1) have not trailed in the majority of its games this season, but were behind 17-10 midway through the second quarter. UNA would then pull off a late surge, scoring 31 unanswered points en route to victory.

The team had to overcome its own mistakes, including four turnovers and a 2-8 third down conversion rate. Although UNA head coach Bobby Wallace said he was happy to advance to the next round, he was quick to acknowledge the slow start.

“I’m very proud we were able to win the game, but obviously this was our worst game of the year,” Wallace said. “But there is going to be a game at some point in time where (mistakes) are going to cost us the game.”

Wallace said this year’s team is one of the best he has ever coached, which made it unusual to see it slip up in critical situations.

“This is still a complete team,” Wallace said. “We just made a few mistakes that we don’t think is our character to do. I think the only thing is there was a little frustration that we were making our own mistakes, but I don’t think there was ever a doubt in the game.”

Having a first round bye gave the Lions two weeks to prepare for UNC-Pembroke and recover from injuries, but also caused a little rust, said junior receiver Dre Hall.

“When we got back to our regular selves and got back into a rhythm, you could tell we were rusty at first,” Hall said. “But after that, everything started to flow really good.”

Hall finished the game with nine catches, 136 receiving yards and a touchdown, accounting for almost half of quarterback Jacob Tucker’s 284 passing yards.

Tucker said the defensive effort made up for the offense’s four turnovers with key stops and maintaining good field position.

“Defense has been our backbone all year, and they’ve done a great job,” Tucker said. “That’s the reason we’re able to sit out a lot of second halves and fourth quarters because the defense does such a good job of containing people and holding them.”

Joining key seniors Levi Fell and Kamarine King on the injury list is starting center Lance Herrod, who had an apparent foot injury on the first drive in last week’s game. Wallace said he is unsure if Herrod will play in the quarterfinals.

Awaiting the Lions in the quarterfinal round is North Greenville, a team UNA defeated 52-21 earlier this season. The sixth seeded Crusaders upset Florida Tech in the opening round before defeating Tuskegee last week to advance to the Super Region 2 final.

“We have to be careful how we approach this game and not be overconfident,” Wallace said.

This will be the first time since 2013 the Lions have advanced to the third round, where UNA fell to the eventual runner-up Lenior Rhyne 42-39.

The winner will advance to the semifinal round of the playoffs, somewhere Wallace has not been since his first stint at UNA in the 1990’s when his team won three consecutive national championships.

“I haven’t been that far in a long time, and these guys haven’t been that far,” Wallace said. “It’s a great accomplishment. We’ve had a great season, and I’m very proud of them. But we want to move on, and I think (North Greenville) wants to move on. We have to correct our mistakes and go from there.”

Kickoff from Braly Stadium  is set for noon Dec. 3.